Review by Michael Goleniewski
Tartarus is an unusual Main Range release in that it mixes two different casts together i.e a Doctor Who TARDIS team and the cast of one of Big Finish’s original releases, Cicero. Taking place in ancient Rome, Cicero centers around the tales of the real-life orator, lawyer, statesman, and philosopher who was a prominent player in the latter days of the Roman republic and the early days of the Roman empire. It’s a set that this reviewer has yet to hear at the time of writing but have heard fantastic things about and hope to tackle in the very near future. Thus, bringing these two casts and settings together seems like a novel idea for a great Who story a la ‘Fires of Pompeii’ (or ‘Fires of Vulcan’ from Big Finish’s main line) as well as a nice introduction in getting listeners excited to check out the other set.
The story sees the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan arriving in Cumae to take a break and satisfy the Doctor’s desire to meet the titular orator. But not long after landing and fulfilling that desire, strange green lights begin to appear in the sky and earthquakes begin to shake the ground. As the TARDIS team and Cicero are brought together and transported to an exaggerated world of statues, monsters, and oracles, Cicero believes that this is truly a world of magic and the gods. But there’s a strange game at play and the Doctor and co. are going to have to play in order to make their way home…..
Right from the off, Tartarus is a refreshingly different story in narrative, structure, and tone. Scott Handcock’s direction is astounding working to create a uniquely inspired Doctor Who version of the epic journey often found in traditional Greek and Roman story-telling. With an interesting two-part structure compared to the usual four-part split that we’re used to in the main range, it works to give the audio a real sense of advancement and time and it feels every bit like the extended adventure of old that it wants to be. While David Llewellyn’s script and writing are a little vaguer than you’d expect with one integral idea seemingly thrown in without any initial background or explanation, the payoff is appropriate for both worlds and the soundscape is still a wonderful mix of both classical and science-fiction backed by another gorgeous audio score.
The main cast is also splendid as well, each with plenty to do with monster battles, puzzles, and dangerous landscapes aplenty. Davison’s Doctor is absolutely wonderful here in both drama and excitement. It’s nice to hear Five actually go fanboy over a historical figure and have a little bit of fun at this point in his life though the circumstances of why he’s actually there do haunt the entire narrative all the way through. Samuel Barnett’s Cicero is also good and an intriguing presence with surprising chemistry to each member of the usual cast. His complicated relationship with the Doctor flickers between awestruck admiration, tense rubbing of elbows, and interesting relatability. The pair end up being far more alike to each other than either of them would care to admit especially in shared skills and darkness from their past which play a prominent role in how things turn out.
Sarah Sutton is fine as Nyssa facing each obstacle along the way with intelligence and naivete and George Watkins as Cicero’s slave Marc is strong with a great backstory and decent characterisation. Out of all of the cast members in this audio, Marc is probably the one you’ll want to keep the closest eye on though the reason as to why constitutes a massive spoiler. But the one who prompts the most direct development out of the story is surprisingly Janet Fielding’s Tegan whose grounded sense of right and wrong is persistent and a major factor. It’s her words that help lead to a big choice in the final moments that prompt a large development set to have lasting repercussions for the future. You’ll know it when you hear it in those final moments but let’s just say it’s appropriately exciting and worryingly sober all at the same time and it certainly gets you curious for what will happen in the following main range double-headers to come.
Taking inspiration from multiple Greek and Roman sources, Tartarus really is a marvellous little tale that warrants multiple listens. Despite the minor narrative and descriptive problems that it has in places, it’s one of the strongest Fifth Doctor audios we’ve had in a long while and a far cry from the tiresome Kamelion trilogy from earlier in the year. But most of all, it’s an adventure that demands and wants your attention not just so you can have an enjoyable journey with its great cast, direction, and soundscape but also to feel motivated to learn more about its subject matter and material. It will definitely leave you wanting to learn more and experience more from Cicero and his world not just in audio form but also in history and real-life detail. Stories that inspire that kind of exploration are few and far between and it’s incredibly refreshing given just how blatant and obvious so many stories in the main range end up being. Highly recommended and a new personal favourite for the Fifth Doctor’s extensive library. 9/10
Download/buy here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/doctor-who-tartarus-1286